Growing up, my sister Julia and I used to attend the Japanese Obon festival, honoring the spirits of our ancestors. We dressed up in kimonos and tried our best to follow the dance movements of our great-aunt.
Other times, at my grandmother’s Orange County home, we’d help make polenta and gnocchi, and after dinner, we’d play Italian card games like Briscola and Scopa.
That duality felt normal when we were younger. We grew up with it; it was part of our lives. But as we both became teenagers, our perceptions of ourselves began to change.
My sister and I are biracial – Japanese on our mother’s side and Italian on our father’s side – but we look nothing alike. I’m somewhat ethnically ambiguous in appearance and Julia is white-passing – even though we share the same DNA, most people assume she’s just white.
During recent conversations with my sister, however, I found we’ve faced many of the same hurdles when it comes to identity and belonging. We both hope that fostering a larger conversation about biracial identities will help society normalize biracial people, not treat them with curiosity.
One thing Julia and I have bonded over is something we’ve termed the “racial guessing game” – when complete strangers make a game out of guessing where we’re both from.
I’m used to being asked, “What are you?” No matter how many times I hear it or any variation of it – “Are you mixed?” or “Where are you really from?” – it catches me off guard. One time, a man I’d never met stopped me on the streets of Westwood to take a guess. I’ve gotten everything from Latina to Greek. For some reason, people seem to love speculating about why I look the way I do.
Julia, as I found out, experiences the same thing. She runs a beauty YouTube channel and regularly fields questions about her ethnicity in the comments, so much so that she adds an FAQ section to the description on each video. Now, in between questions about using cruelty-free makeup and how to pronounce our last name, she includes: “Q. What is your ethnicity? A. I am 50 percent Japanese and 50 percent European (a blend of Russian, Italian and a little German).”
When I asked her to show me some of the comments she receives, she told me that wouldn’t be possible: She deletes all of them because they make her mad, which I understand. While most people probably have good intentions, there are only so many times one can tolerate such intrusive yet casual scrutiny.
However, there is one notable difference in the guesses Julia and I receive when we become unwilling participants in the racial guessing game. People typically only guess European countries for Julia, and are often skeptical when she tells them she’s actually half Japanese.
Julia is quick to recognize that she comes from a position of relative privilege in terms of race – perhaps the biggest discrepancy between our experiences.
“I realize that I am afforded so many things because I look a certain way,” Julia said. “I acknowledge the privileges that come with being white-passing, and I have not had the same experiences as you have. I haven’t been racially discriminated against because I’m Asian, like you have, because you appear to be Asian.”
As someone who is often perceived as an Asian woman, I have experienced several different forms of racial prejudice and discrimination. The most memorable experience for me was when someone on a dating app called me an “Oriental motherfucker” and a “dumb fat Asian,” and asked if I ate dog. Charming.
This brand of racism is luckily not an everyday occurrence for me, but it is something that I have had to contend with, while my sister has been able to avoid it. In some ways, though, I find it much easier to dismiss vitriolic racism than some of the subtle microaggressions my sister and I have both experienced.
Like me, Julia grew up blissfully unaware of the confusion our identity could create until she entered high school. While I went to a performing arts high school, Julia attends a public high school in Irvine with a deeply competitive atmosphere. In the past year, the racial demographics of her surroundings – Irvine is about 40 percent white and 40 percent Asian – have brought her identity into focus for the first time.
In her precalculus class, Julia was assigned to a table group with four other Asian students. Looking around, she noticed that the majority of the class was Asian, and commented on her observation.
Her classmates responded: Yes, except for you.
“When I told them I was half Japanese, they told me I ‘wasn’t really Asian,’” Julia said. “I was confused and they said, ‘Well, you’re only half Japanese and Japanese people are the most whitewashed Asian people.’ In that moment, I just suddenly became aware of how they perceived me. I didn’t realize that they saw me as the white girl in sheep’s clothing.”
That idea that we are somehow not enough, that undermining of identity, is a consistent issue for both of us. Julia articulated many of the feelings we share about the oddity of others guessing at our identity.
“That’s 50 percent of my genetics, that’s 50 percent of my heritage, and to have that half of my identity be denied to me was strange,” she said. “It sucks feeling like you don’t really have a place, and that goes for anything, but I guess what’s most annoying about it, especially now that I’ve become more conscious of being excluded, is that this is something that I fight very hard to acknowledge in myself.”
Even though I’m not white-passing, and I do look like I am Asian, I could pinpoint an exact moment in my life, in elementary school, when I felt the same sense of loneliness and exclusion.
My sister and I used to work as background extras in movies and TV shows. We were catalogued in a database by various specifications – age, height, abilities and race.
One day, a call came in from “NCIS: Los Angeles.” They were looking for a featured extra, not just a human prop to place in the background. I was excited and watched eagerly as my father called in to get the details. The conversation was short, and he hung up.
He told me they had pulled up my picture and changed their mind. They were looking for a young Asian girl, and upon seeing my face, they decided I didn’t look the part. Their exact words were that I wasn’t “Asian enough.”
I remember feeling a mixture of embarrassment and confusion. The next day, when I told the story at school, I accompanied it with a laugh and a grin. I told the story as a ridiculous joke, and that’s what it was. But no matter how many times I told the story, those words stuck with me. How could I not be enough?
Comments like these undermine my sense of identity and make me question who I am on a deeply personal level. Julia and I have both wondered if we are “Asian enough,” with varying levels of intensity. Despite that one experience, I’ve always taken my Japanese identity and heritage for granted, whereas Julia has approached it with more apprehension. I have, however, struggled to legitimize my Italian identity more so than my Japanese identity.
No one ever questions Julia’s Italian heritage. But when I traveled to Italy last summer, I became aware of just how different I was from my family and fellow Italians, even though my grandparents were immigrants, making my father a first-generation Italian-American.
As we traveled through the northern Italian countryside, I was hyperconscious of my differences in a way that I rarely am. At a large event with family and friends, one woman singled me out – I was the only person of color – to show me pictures of her adopted Asian grandchild.
Perhaps Julia and I both gravitate toward the parts of our identity that we feel most alienated from. I’ve made several attempts to learn how to speak Italian over the years, while Julia has always been fascinated with Japanese history. I don’t think it’s conscious, but it’s almost as if we do these things to try to reclaim that heritage, to make us more deserving of it.
Despite my own internal struggles with what part of my identities I claim, I’ve never hesitated to self-identify as a woman of color. But for Julia, it had always been a question rather than a statement.
“I just didn’t really feel comfortable identifying as that, because I haven’t faced terrible acts of racism,” Julia said. “It’s just feeling like I’m not enough. I don’t have the experiences that these people have. I don’t fit every single characteristic. (It’s) almost like it would be offensive for me to claim that kind of identity, so I shied away from it for a long time, but now I’m just like, this is who I am.”
Her answer stunned me for two reasons. First, I realized that even though I’m comfortable calling myself a woman of color, I too sometimes feel like I don’t have the right to talk about my experiences because they aren’t “bad enough.” Again, the idea that there is some unspoken, unmeasurable quota that I don’t fulfill looms over me, as it does for her.
And secondly, when I asked her, she didn’t hesitate to confirm her identity as a woman of color. I couldn’t help but wonder what provoked that change. Julia said there wasn’t a specific moment when she decided to claim the identity. Instead, it resulted from a build-up of feelings and events.
“I’m missing out on a large part of who I am and I felt like I needed to reclaim that,” she said. “I needed to embrace that, and I’ve been letting people walk all over me because they didn’t think that I was enough to be part of that community. So now, I’m just saying that’s who I’m going to be.”
Despite this recent shift, Julia still faces major mental roadblocks in fully claiming her biracial identity.
I asked Julia if she would go to an Obon dance now like we used to when we were children, and she hesitated before saying no.
“I would love to – I wish I could,” Julia said. “But it’s no longer, ‘Oh look, it’s grandparents taking their little white grandchildren to experience this culture,’ now it’s, ‘Oh it’s a white girl who came because she wanted to experience Japanese culture.’ I guess that’s one of the things I have to deal with. Because of all the advantages that being ‘white’ carry, the one thing that I do have to grapple with is the erasure of 50 percent of my biology.”
I was shocked. I joined the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Citizens League last year and had considered attending their Obon festival without question. This festival connects us to members of our family. My main memories of my great-grandmother, who has since passed away, are deeply entwined with memories of the festival. I’ve always hoped to return to help me remember that connection with her.
And yet my sister, who used to follow me around and copy my motions as I copied those of the professional dancers, felt she couldn’t share in this significant part of our culture and our history. In that moment, I wanted to say I would stand by her, that I would welcome her into the dance circle with open arms. But then I realized how patronizing that sounded – she shouldn’t need me to validate her presence just because I happen to look more Asian than she does.
There wasn’t anything to say, and that broke my heart. I love my sister beyond words, and yet we are divided by this nebulous, invisible line.
Maybe she’ll never attend another Obon festival again, but I do hope that one day, my sister and I will be able to dress up in kimonos and dance together, however clumsily. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by the middle of the century, the country will be a majority-minority one, and recent trends show that more and more children are multiracial. Julia and I both hope that some day, as it becomes more prevalent, multiracial identity will be easier to navigate.
Our identity unites and divides us, both from each other and from the communities we tenuously call our own. We’re left to contend with this paradox of who we are.